Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Hold the SALT

The Loop devised by Matt Kirk and mapped by Brad Kee, both of whom have now completed the trek. Credit and more.

Supposing a picture is worth a thousand words I can tell this story in a little over the equivalent of 4000 words -- one for each of the four full days I spent fast-packing half of the Southern Appalachian Loop Trail (SALT). I closed in on 200 miles connecting the Foothills Trail, Palmetto Trail, Bracken Mountain Trail, Art Loeb Trail, and Mountains to Sea Trail. I stopped as I approached the Appalachian Trail through the Smokies and therefore missed that portion of the SALT as well as the Bartram Trail.

I. Flowing over Appalachian Foothills.
My trek began pleasantly enough -- my ambivalence was washed away by the Chattooga River and my spirit invigorated by the lush flora. I spent the first two days (roughly) rolling along the Foothills Trail. The trail is well marked and maintained, and the water crossings so frequent that I could wait until my bottles completely emptied before worrying about refilling them. I cruised along at a modest trekking pace making only the shortest of stops to get, or get rid of, water. I can see why the trail between Oconee and Table Rock State Parks is a popular thru-hike. I'd love to return and do it with my kids sometime.

Day 1: Flow in the Foothills

II. Goal Driven
Completing the Foothills section did not pose any obstacles, but following the Palmetto Trail into the "missing link" and toward Brevard threw me into a goal-oriented mindset that easily slipped into frustration. I found my way to the Jones Gap Trail in the early evening but was greeted by a thunderstorm as I tried to navigate onto an un-mapped trail above Rainbow Falls. I felt pretty resourceful as I decisively scooped water into my bottles, bushwhacked to a shallow rock ledge and perched precariously to wait out the storm. Meanwhile I filtered the water, cooked and ate dinner, and stayed relatively dry. After the storm passed -- but while it continued raining -- I eventually found my way to Rainbow Falls and made the stout climb to Camp Greeneville as darkness approached. As the light -- and my wits -- dimmed I set camp up high on the power-line cut that I would follow to DuPont State Forest on day 3.

Day 2: Getting more serious traversing the tricky Palmetto Trail.

III. Losing my Grip.
As I got into my tent and casually munched some trail mix while warming back up in my bag, I expected to easily fall asleep. As with all five nights I would spend on the trail, however, I found no rest for my weariness. I tossed and turned, barely sleeping despite relatively plush gear. I packed a CCF pad as well as an inflatable Klymit pad, an inflatable pillow, and a 30F down sleeping bag -- all inside a pretty airy hexamid solplex tent from zpacks. I carried all that because I knew at age 45 I needed more cushion for my bones in order to be able to sleep well.  I had to custom make a waist-pack to be able carry the tent and sleeping bag and maintain mobility to run (or trot really) the flats and downs. Although the kit worked as intended I began to slip into the trap of sleep-deprivation.

On day 3 I made several wrong turns and backtracked multiple times as I second-guessed many decisions. I carried maps and a compass (a lesson I learned from the CT last year) but at times that made matters worse because the map didn't match the ground (at least not at the scale I was experiencing it). To get through the DuPont State Forest, for example, I knew that I had to get on the Cornmill Shoals Trail. I came upon a sign, and I knew I needed to go west, but it wasn't clear which way to proceed from the intersection. I would follow one fork as it meandered away from the intersection in a roughly westerly direction only to find that a half mile later it turned and headed back toward the east. So I would backtrack and follow it in the other direction only to find that the trail also meandered haphazardly that way. I became exasperated (multiple times). My feelings were amplified by my state of mind, and would have troubled me much less had my brain been working better. As quickly as I had sunk into despair, my spirits were lifted when Matt Kirk materialized abruptly in front of me mid-morning. He gave me pizza, pineapple, and tea that I carried along as we trotted through the final couple stretches of DuPont and emerged for a modest road section into Brevard. I was able to cruise into Brevard before noon, with plenty of time to eat Mexican and re-supply at Food Lion. Even so I wandered back and forth on Main Street completely disoriented and unable to make a simple decision.

I left Brevard feeling refueled and energized, and made good time on the bike-smoothed Bracken Mt Trail. The terrain was easy all the way to the Art Loeb, and then changed abruptly. That trail tended to get tougher as I headed North, and culminated with the climb up Pilot Mountain. Fortunately I came upon my intended stopping point more quickly than expected, and had yet another early evening that should have been relaxing and made possible a good rest. I happened upon a group of 4 backpackers staying at the Deep Gap shelter. They were excellent company -- even sharing a brat (and offering beer that I declined) -- but I probably would have made better decisions alone. Although my feet were wet and extremely tender, for example, I didn't get out of my shoes immediately. (They had set up a tent inside the shelter and had occupied the space I would have needed to go shoe-less. Also, my feet reeked -- and not just typical foot odor. More explanation on section IV). Although I noticed they had packed in plenty of alcohol I set up my tent near the shelter. I doubt I would have slept regardless, but I did get mildly frustrated after I laid down to sleep and listened to them carry on into the evening.

Day 3: Big climb up Pilot Mountain late in the day after many bonus miles

Throwback parallel shot from my AT thru-hike in 1998 after a long climb in the Whites.

IV. Why Stop?

Day 4 was supposed to have been the shortest of the trek. I overshot the turnoff from Art Loeb to Mountains To Sea Trail (MST), though, and added 3+ miles. (The trail marker had been taken and the trail was not obvious otherwise). Later, I also overshot a large switchback on the MST that wasn't mapped and therefore went back and forth on that, adding another couple of miles. Although it didn't rain on me, the humidity was once again high and the vegetation along the trail was lush and wet. My feet stayed soaked all day. I began the day dragging from another sleepless night. I don't know that I would have felt like continuing except that Rob French made the trip from Greensboro to run with me for the day. My spirits immediately buoyed when I saw him coming toward me. Rob and I care about similar things, but he has this personable side that I seem to lack. He's just easy to be with. We ran together for about ten hours. Things I would have fretted over had I been alone I was able to manage with him along. He was with me when I overshot the switchback, and it made all the difference. Instead of cussing into the wind I just talked it over with him. And even though he always said (even when I crazily suggested bushwhacking up a creek) that it was my trek and he'd go along with my decision, somehow I made a better decision because I was able to ask him about it first. My energy and pace stayed steady, even as I felt my  grip over my emotions ever-loosening.

What I really like about talking with Rob is he doesn't mind to get right into honest conversation. He admitted, for example, that he showed up in part because he didn't have any good enough reason not to. That pretty well summed up some of my feeling about starting the SALT trek. It was Matt Kirk's idea, after all, and two other guys were supposed to be in as well. I just happened to be the last guy who didn't have a good enough reason to pull out. So maybe I was looking for it. The forty-mile days weren't going to kill me, though. Those seemed to me a reasonable day's work. The tendinitis and swelling on my right foot really wasn't prohibitive either. By the end of day 4, though, the skin on my feet was really getting angry. I knew what was happening because it happened to me once before just over a year ago. My feet stayed wet for over 24 hours during the Cruel Jewel 100 in Georgia and I felt them go raw inside my shoes. When I finally took off my shoes at the end the stench was nauseating. I thought my skin was going to peel off. Now again I was experiencing the first stages of trench foot -- a fungal infection which left untreated can have dire consequences. The infection is quite manageable, of course. All you have to do is stop and keep your feet dry. My feet were painful and the thought of managing them caused me concern.

The truth is, though, I didn't feel forced to stop. I could have managed something. I could have stopped for "air breaks" during the day and rotated the 3 pairs of socks I now had (I started with 2). I could have run into town and bought a light pair of sandals to rotate with my shoes. I could have applied anti-fungal powder several times during the day. I don't know for sure what would have worked, but I know I hadn't yet been debilitated. The inflammation went down enough on night 4 to run again on day 5, so I did. Despite another night of very little and very restless sleep, I easily covered 26 miles before noon. But my feet burned, and I didn't want to deal with them. I didn't want to figure out how to manage. The miles had allowed many other percolating thoughts to surface -- things I cared more about. My kids are finishing school this week and want me to acknowledge their accomplishments (they both have award ceremonies this week). And they want a ride to the Amusement Park. And I want them to know that I love them. And I have responsibilities at work and around the house that I don't have good reasons to expect others (like my wife) to step in and takeover just because I want to show that I can cover a lot of ground in a few days.

So, as everything else got stripped away that is just the truth that I was left with. I felt like stopping.

Day 4: First signs of trench foot. Good enough reason to stop?
I haven't fully sorted out what that means for future endeavors. I feel re-oriented around some of the things I really care about. One of those is completing a book project that I started last spring. I feel I have gained a determination to complete that project in proportion to any diminution of motivation to complete an FKT. I feel strongly enough that I'm re-jiggering some of my well-established habits. That project itself could be grist for a future post. Ask me about my progress and I'll let you know.

V. Other SALT Resources

Trackleaders.com. Cool website for comparing attempts on this and other long trails. Donate here to support.

wnctrailrunner wiki

Matt Kirk's article on Appalachian Voice

Some of the ultralight gear I used:

  • Zpacks solplex tent
  • Zpacks 30F down bag
  • Gossamer gear thinlight CCF pad
  • Klymit Inertia Xlite pad
  • Gossamer gear lt3c trekking poles
  • Salomon Skin Pro 10+3 pack
  • Princeton Tec Apex Pro Headlamp
  • DIY waistpack from recycled nylon hammock